This Perry Mason review contains spoilers.
Perry Mason Episode 6
Perry Mason, “Chapter Six,” delivers the title character’s courtroom debut. For a man who is going to embody an icon of courtroom drama, Perry Mason is off to a much less than auspicious start. Matthew Rhys coughs, stammers, makes self-effacing jokes as he stumbles into objectionable oratory and forgets to bring water to court before he even makes it through the first paragraph of his opening statement.
His worthy opponent, District Attorney Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root), is just finishing his two-hour opening statement as the episode opens, and we can tell it went flawlessly. He is a veteran attorney and an effective showman, who is so fully prepared he even brought an extra glass for Mason. The defense attorney goes as long as he can before he takes that glass, and immediately tries to douse the prosecution’s fiery salvos.
The trial scenes are fun to watch. The actors treat the trial court like a basketball court and the guilt and innocence is the ball. Root plays keep-away, not exactly dominating the game, but covering Mason so tight he can barely dribble. When Mason finally spins out, Rhys sinks a 3-pointer into nothing but net from 40 feet out, only to get called on a shooting foul.
Things get better for Mason on cross examination. While Matthew Dodson (Nate Corddry) doesn’t break down and confess on the stand, Mason certainly gets under his skin. Is Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick) a wealthy guy, the attorney wants to know about the witness’ recently discovered father, who has a vested interest in the case. “Up there with Vanderbilt and Ford,” Mason informs the jury, which is more than Matthew did for his wife.
The judge has to repeatedly warn the witness how close he is to being jailed for contempt. But the contempt Mr. Dodson throws at his wife Emily (Gayle Rankin), registers on the jury in ways which still sting at Mason’s case. The testimonial breakdown must be signs of things to come, as this will be the defense lawyer’s signature gimmick.
Stephen Root can play off anyone, but some witnesses refuse to play nice. In DA Barnes’ courtroom scenes with Mason there are multiple connections made between the two actors. In his briefing with Detective Ennis (Andrew Howard) there is a major disconnect, but not in the acting, which is amazing.
Ennis is very reluctant, a hostile witness even in the friendly environment of the District Attorney’s office. Ennis’ partner pulls a great scene out of the wreckage. He smashes up a beloved car and ends with a vow to protect his corrupt partner even if someone has to die over it.
Ennis is a compelling antagonist and Howard does a fantastic job unambiguously playing moral ambiguity. He’s corrupt, so what? He was trained to be corrupt by the best. It’s just a job gone wrong. What’s the big deal? I got mouths to feed. Howard gives these one-dimensional excuses meaning and depth. He, more than any other actor on the series, is a time capsule of the period.
Officer Paul Drake feels the crush of the period, and Chris Chalk allows him to awaken to it with strong reluctance. When Drake goes on the stand and allows Mason to hold back damning evidence because of some promise he made, Chalk walks an emotional tightrope. He goes from utter fear to a palpable desire to come clean, occasionally within eye-blinks. He has a love/hate relationship with the one piece of evidence, a denture-break-off, which can save an innocent woman from the gas chamber.
Mason’s “just fishing” line is very telling. He keeps a promise and loses an opportunity, but Drake’s anguish is a creaky doorway to a scary cellar. As a Black police officer, Drake can’t even arrest a white criminal. A white murderer gets to look down on him. When he takes the money for making the whole division look good in court, Chalk makes it look like he’s playing Judas bagging blood money. His pregnant wife has to get out of town while he makes it right. Of course, this being HBO’s Perry Mason, it all starts with a bit of legal trickery.
Mason and Peter Strickland (Shea Whigham) chafe over their new distribution of duties. There is a great scene where Strickland basically spoon feeds Mason his investigative findings. Strickland goes on to get spit on by a toothless old-timer, commit ad hoc mail fraud, and ultimately be out-wiseassed on the job by a lady county clerk. But between him and Della Street, who wills success through the power of pertinent curiosity, Mason’s team comes up with the goods, as bad as they are. George Gannon was stealing from the church for the church.
The investigation and courtroom scenes play off each other well. Each adds context and suspense to the other. The music helps piece it together as discovery gets its own theme music. The new player in the conspiracy, Seidel, is a church man. Everything points back to where it begins, ends and centers. Street and Strickland dance separately around the clues, but pirouette into Mason’s lane. Sometimes it is a trapeze act, and sometimes they miss each other by inches.
The matron Barbara Frye probably breaks a commandment on the stand and the charge against Emily goes from kidnapping to murder. This is a huge moment. It is done with an orchestral grace with Maynard conducting and the judge completely drowned out in the mix. It escalates to the symphonic glissando. The press runs to file copy and question the defendant on her way out of the courthouse. Led by Elder Brown (David Wilson Barnes), the Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) protesters block the steps with signs counting down the days to the resurrection. Jesus did it in three. Alice has ten until she is exposed.
Alice has taken beating after beating on stage and is ready to fall from grace if that is the divine plan. Her mother Birdy McKeegan (Lili Taylor) has a contingency plan: Run. She’s all packed, probably needed to get out anyway. But the slap across the face Birdy gives Alice is a shock.
The way Alice recoils, the shake in her hands and full body language, shows this has happened before. She is waiting for the next blow to fall. It is a brutal second of time. Alice is remembering a lot of things, Mama. Meanwhile Emily believes she will get off if Mason finds the real killer. We don’t know if she’s once again suffering hunger pains or truly out to lunch, a choice Della visibly ponders without saying a word.
In “Chapter Five,” John Lithgow’s son Ian Lithgow gave a drop dead impression as Byron Jonathan, the son of EB Jonathan. Tonight Rhys does it in his car after the trial. “How did it go, EB,” he asks himself and then mimics “a few observations” from his former mentor. It rises until he breaks down and Mason is screaming at EB. It is almost daring, yelling at a dead person like that, calling him a coward with true anger and no regret. Until you see it is all remorse and desperation.
“I’ve been waiting for you to find me,” says the man with the gun at the very closing scene, which encapsulates the pulpy fun of the series. Perry Mason isn’t only a good courtroom drama, it is good drama. All of the performances have necessary flaws. The action builds to nerve-wracking levels, and the breaths in between are mirrored by the characters.
Rhys wears his frustration openly. Chalk barely contains self-loathing. Rankin is naked in her misguided faith. Maslany welcomes failure. Mason’s girlfriend Lupe Gibbs (Veronica Falcón) is getting to be an annoying detail on the show. It is an unnecessary added blemish of cynicism. Rylance offsets this by bringing a sense of wonder into mundane snatches of paperwork. “Chapter Six” makes the most of its motley crew of ensemble players in a decisive win for a losing defense.